The Quest for Ethnic, Cultural, and National Identities in Literature

ENGL 2008; Fall, 2017  

Section TR9, code # 34883

3 hours; 3 credits


Instructor: Rennie Gonsalves

Office: 1420 Ingersoll; Tel.: 718-951-5928

E-mail address:

Office Hours: Tuesdays 8:00-9:00 & 12:30-1:30 and Thursdays 8:00-9:00 in 1420 Ingersoll

Class meetings: Tuesdays and Thursdays 9:30-10:45 in Room TBA



General Description of the Course:

This course will examine the “quest for ethnic and national identity in literature” through the reading and study of five key novels:  The Mystic Masseur by V. S. Naipaul (1957), Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1982), Absurdistan: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart (2006), The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (2008), and In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (2010).  We will approach these novels through the theme of the absurd in fiction. The absurd, according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, is “the state or condition in which man exists in an irrational and meaningless universe in which man’s life has no meaning outside his own existence.”  We will begin our study of the theme of the absurd by examining first the work of Albert Camus, through his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.”  We will then look at how Camus translates this vision of the absurd into fiction in his powerful novel The Stranger.  We will use this theme to frame our discussion of the novels.

We will look at the intersection of the absurd with how each of these novels portrays an ethnic, cultural, or national identity. We will look for elements of the absurd in each of the novels while at the same time taking into account how each author uses fiction to depict the national and ethnic circumstances of the different countries portrayed: Naipaul’s Trinidad, Marquez’s Columbia, Shteyngart’s Russia, Roy’s India, and Alvarez’s the Dominican Republic. 

While focusing on the absurd as an overarching theme, we will nevertheless emphasize the elements of fiction, being most intent to see how such aspects as the development and manipulation of a narrative point-of-view, the creation of fictional characters, the handling of dialogue, the use of detail, and the effort to achieve a sense of realism are accomplished in each of these works of fiction. Mostly we will try to enjoy the novels that we will read while learning something about how fiction works and how the theme of the absurd can enrich our understanding and appreciation of literature.  

Students will write a two to three page response paper for each of the novels, due on the day we start reading that novel.  In addition, there will be one oral presentation on one of the novels based on a slightly longer response paper (4 to 5 pages).  There will also be a term paper, a midterm, and a final. The reading load for this course is quite heavy so students are encouraged to read ahead.

Course Objectives:


By the end of this course you should

-demonstrate a knowledge of several novels, and of their historical, social, and cultural backgrounds;

-recognize the impact of cultural, economic, political, and social environments upon language, and especially upon the development of fiction in various countries.

-show knowledge of works by female authors and authors of color;

-demonstrate how reading writing speaking, listening, viewing, and thinking are interrelated;

-show knowledge of works of literary theory and criticism ;

-use a wide range of writing strategies to generate meaning and to clarify understanding.

(Course objectives adapted from NCTE guidelines)


Required Texts (available in the BC Bookstore):


The Novels:

Albert Camus. The Stranger, Vintage Books (2012; Originally Published in 1942)

V. S. Naipaul, The Mystic Masseur, Vintage Books, 2002.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chronicle Of A Death Foretold, Vintage Books, 1982.

Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan A Novel, Random House, 2006.

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, Random House, 2008.

Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies, Algonquin Books, 2010


Secondary Texts:

Neil Cornwell, The Absurd in Literature, Manchester University Press, 2006.

Albert Camus and Justin O’Brien , The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Vintage Books, 1991.


I will assign a variety of other critical essays on the novels we will read.